The Olympics: Diplomacy & Politics


The Olympic Games, born of diplomatic and political design, have always played an important role in international politics. The Olympics provide a stage for both international cooperation and peaceful competition, as well as international conflict and confrontation. Join Active Minds as we explore the rich history of the Olympic Games and how the games have been involved in a variety of international political issues over the years.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Games of the XXXII Olympiad will be held in Tokyo, Japan, July 23 to August 8.  The games were originally scheduled to take place July 24 to August 9 2020, but had to be rescheduled due to the global outbreak of Covid-19.
  • This is the second time Tokyo will host the summer Olympics (the first Olympics in the city were held in 1964); Tokyo is the first Asian city to host the summer games twice. These games mark the second of three consecutive Olympic events to be hosted in East Asia (2018 Winter in PyeongChang, Korea, 2020/2021 Summer in Tokyo, 2022 Winter in Beijing).
  • Historically, countries whose relations have been tense, or even conflict-ridden, have come to the Olympic Games and peacefully competed with one another.  That the United States and the Soviet Union both attended the Olympics throughout the duration of the Cold War (with notable exceptions), and competed peacefully with one another, is testament to this point.
  • On the other hand, the Olympic Games have also at times provided a forum for international conflict, with the prestige of the Games often utilized to draw attention to contentious global or national issues and/or to isolate countries seen to be “objectionable” for some reason.  The US boycott, along with 64 other nations, of the 1980 Games in Moscow, the banning of the South African delegation from the 1964 Games in Tokyo, and the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich are examples of this phenomenon.
  • Olympic Games have become huge events, requiring extensive infrastructure and lavish ceremonies.   The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were the most expensive in history—more than twice the cost of the 2012 London Games.  As the costs skyrocket, economic benefits are far from clear.  This is causing fewer nations to apply to host the Games. The price tag for the 2020/2021 Olympics is estimated at $25 billion.
    Cancelling the summer Olympics cost an estimated $6 billion in lost economic activity. The cost considerations for this summer’s Olympics may be increased due Covid-related adjustments.

Exploration Questions

  • To what extent are the Olympics limited in their ability to foster global peace and understanding?  Why?
  • In what ways were the ancient Greek Olympics similar and different from their modern successor?
  • What does the future of the Olympics look like? Will the games continue to expand in cost and become cost prohibitive?

Reflective Questions

  • Did you support President Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Games?
  • Did you support the decision to reject the Olympics in Denver?  Do you think Denver should bid again?
  • What are some of your favorite Winter Olympic competitions?
  • Who are some of your favorite Olympic athletes?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Schaap, Jeremy. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics. (paperback) Mariner Books, 2008. 272 pages. Based on interviews with the Owen’s family and extensive archival research, Schaaps tells the remarkable story of Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games and his refutation of Hitler.
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  • Wilson, Neil. The Treasures of the Olympic Games: An Official Olympic Museum Publication. Carlton Publishing Group, 2008. Fully authorized and produced in partnership with the official Olympic Museum, this unique treasure trove includes more than 200 photographs and 25 removable facsimiles of rare Olympic memorabilia.
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  • Klein, Aaron J. Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response.  Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007. 288 pages. The author tells the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the Israeli counterterrorism operation it spawned.
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  • Zimbalist, Andrew.  Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.  Brookings Institution Press, 2016.  224 pages. An economic analysis weighing the costs and benefits of hosting high profile sports events like the Olympics and the World Cup to determine if host cities really experience an economic windfall.
    Click here to order